Saturday, September 27, 2014

Stephen Asma and the Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate

The reviews of Following Form and Function are intriguing to say the least.

The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate?  Never heard of it.  Sounds interesting.

Yet, it surprises me to find that recapitulation precedes both Darwin and Haeckel, and that structuralism seems to have had a rich pre-Darwin history.
Serres had been influenced by the theoretical developments in German biology, most notably by early versions of the recapitulation theory proposed by Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer in 1793 and Johann Friedrich Meckel’s theory of arrests of development in 1811. Like Meckel, Serres believed that it was necessary to study the transitional forms of embryos to understand the permanent adult forms of vertebrates. Doing so, he assumed, would reveal that the developed forms of the lower classes of animals – invertebrates, for example –mimicked the intermediate embryonic forms of higher vertebrates. This idea of development was expressed in the Meckel-Serres Law, and distinguished from the later evolutionary accounts of the recapitulation theory proposed by Ernst Haeckel. Serres’ idea of arrests of development, and Geoffroy’s understanding of it, was transcendental rather than evolutionary. For transcendental anatomists like Serres and Geoffroy, the semblances discovered in embryonic stages reflected a particular metaphysical view of life and a philosophy of anatomy exemplified by Geoffroy’s principle of the unity of composition. The similarities inferred by these kinds of embryological studies did not necessarily represent the similarities of structure between vertebrates and invertebrates as an actual empirical fact of transformation from one species to another (i.e. an evolutionary account), but rather they represented the abstraction of an ideal type required by anatomists to form general laws of development and morphology in biology (i.e. a transcendental account). In other words, the principle of unity, the theory of analogies, the theory of arrests of development and the search for homologies were all regulative principles that served as conditions for the possibility of scientific discoveries in the field of anatomy.
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